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Reader DW writes in with the following question:

As a professional observer of city hall activities, just how “strong” a mayor would you rank Jerry Sanders? How does he stack up to his predecessors like Pete Wilson, Roger Hedgecock, Susan Golding and Dick Murphy. Does he get out in front of issues and take clear stands on the big ones, or does he tend to act like a spectator, standing on the sidelines with his hands in his pockets?

And how effective is his top staff? How would you rate his top deputies compared to the staff’s of Hedgecock, Golding and Murphy?

How do they get along with the city council members and their staffers?

Wow, DW, that’s a tough one – because of my age and the age of Sanders’ tenure.

First, I’ve only covered the Murphy and Sanders administrations – and, in fact, I’ve only lived in San Diego for those two administrations. (And I wasn’t even alive for the first seven years of Wilson’s administration, so I’m not going to even try at that one.)

I’ll do my best just to offer my observations so far. It’s important to note that Murphy was very popular in his first years. Even as the city in 2003 slogged through unfriendly relations with the Chargers, budget woes and the first threads of the pension sweater were being unraveled, observers thought that Murphy was a sure-thing for reelection. Things can change quickly.

Sanders hasn’t yet faced a huge test – nothing like a massive fire or Justice Department investigation. I’ve heard grumblings from some supporters already about the way he handled his first budget – they’re worried it was a continuing of the past. He took a big pass on the airport decision – a clear issue in which he did choose the sidelines over getting out in front.

There are also many legitimate worries about the pension obligation bonds. If he’s to truly deal with the pension system, there will have to be much more done than just POBs. And it’s even debatable if they should be done at all. The Kroll report validates those worries. (It’s amazing how many tens of millions San Diegans need to pay outside professionals to place layer upon layer of validation of what’s already been printed in the press.)

But don’t get me wrong – there are bright spots as well. Sanders does a much better job of dealing with (and managing) the media than Murphy. He allows his spokesman to speak for him. Murphy’s press secretaries couldn’t comment for him, they just arranged press conferences and scheduled phone calls. That means that if a busy mayor didn’t get back to you, the administration didn’t get a say in an article. I can’t tell you how many times I had to write “Murphy was unavailable for comment.” I’ve probably only had to do that once with Sanders.

It is funny to see all the press conferences the mayor has. They’ve got controlling the TV cameras down perfectly. They even have press conferences for things they really have nothing to do with, like ComicCon and the beach smoking ban, for example. He is doing what he said he’d do: be more of a community booster and greeter than a manager.

They are quick and responsive to Public Records Act requests, a marked change from the previous administration. (We’ve even had records requests hand delivered to our door in the evening hours. A request for Murphy’s legislative calendar used to take months and plenty of resistance. We can get Sanders’ in a matter of hours.)

It’s tough to say about top deputies. It’s still too early to see how their decisions will play out in the long haul. Oftentimes, it takes years to truly understand the impacts of the decisions that are made today.

His dance with the City Council has been an interesting one. It appears that they are getting along, but I must admit I haven’t been monitoring that relationship beyond the surface appearances. The mayor goes to great pains to never blame anything from the past on the City Council and never disparages them (although he certainly did plenty of that on the campaign trail). Publicly, the mayor’s been able to pull of a pretty agile balancing act in his relationships with the City Council and City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

Thanks for the questions. Keep them coming.

ANDREW DONOHUE

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